Ethnomusicologist Jeremy Wallach of Bowling Green University considered himself lucky to be in Indonesia in the late 1990s, when the country was undergoing political transformation following the resignation of president Soeharto in 1998. At the time, Wallach was doing fieldwork for his book Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia, 1997-2001, which enabled him to witness a direct relationship between the underground music and the burgeoning opposition movement that sought to challenge Soeharto’s authoritarian regime. Returning home to the United States, Wallach wrote extensively on metal and made a name for himself as one of proponents in the rising academic movement focusing on the genre. Earlier this month, Wallach was in town to promote the Indonesian edition of Modern Noise by having a discussion at the American cultural center @america, where he spent time reminiscing about attending a punk makeshift gig on a banana farm in West Jakarta. He spoke with The Jakarta Post’s Ester Christine Natalia about the current state of the scene. Below are excerpts:
Question: What is metal and global metal?
Answer: Metal I think is a pretty important genre in the world, and its global expansion has been something that no one really predicted but now really urgently needs to be understood by scholars and assessed as a global phenomenon. Its dimensions have been mapped provisionally by a number of different researchers and in some parts of the world its impact has been considerable.
Among those places are Eastern Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Particularly the part of Southeast Asia that is sometimes called the Malay world; the geographical region that comprises Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even the Southern Philippines, and even highland Madagascar.
There is a real deep affinity for metal music for a lot of people. And certainly there are a number of social and cultural factors that help explain those. But it's certainly a phenomenon that can’t be ignored and has led to a number of significant developments. First of all, it has led to the underground scene of local communities that are connected through zines, through internet sites, through recordings being traded back and forth across national boundaries that’s connected through the global networks of scenes but also has a strong local identity and a strong regional identity. So there is a sort of global social network that this is part of. And this scene also has a strong local identity.
So one thing that metal means to me as a researcher is that it’s a global community. And that’s not an empty phrase because it’s something that even rock stars acknowledge. In the last 10 years, the planet-wide dimensions of metal culture are really apparent for all to see now.
Is there such a thing as local metal? Like may be in Indonesia there is some kind of metal music that can’t be found in other countries?
Absolutely. Some of the more popular heavy metal bands in Indonesia play styles that you can’t hear in other places. But certainly there are two kinds of local metals. There is metal like Seringai, because of its own unique blend of international influences like Slayer, Motorhead, Black Sabbath and Prong. But often when people talk about local metal they want to talk about bands like Eternal Madness or Kremush or Gugat, bands that use Indonesian instruments, like Karinding Attack bands that use sounds and melodies and instruments from Indonesian traditional music. Certainly there are no bands outside Indonesia who sound like that because these are bands take local elements from indigenous music and incorporate them into heavy metal music.
And with the rise of folk metal, which has happened in the last 15 years. Especially. We have more and more bands that sound like those guys. And those are, of course, unique in Indonesia, and also in Malaysia and Singapore. These are relatively new things and that’s something that has been a feature of pop music in the archipelago for a very long time.
Did metal or underground music contribute to bringing down the New Order regime?
The contributions, I think, are hard to quantify. But we know certain things. We know that the underground scene had set up a social infrastructure. It help set up social networks to people that are important for maintaining communities where activism could be supported. People in campuses, we know that through zines, through the circulation of underground artifacts, various radical lefties ideologies and theories of resistance of political opposition circulating through networks brought by young people. We know that certain opposition of consciousness was fostered by angry, resisting music. We know that a lot of heavy metal is very political despite what people think. Bands like Sepultura, Talga, Testament, Rage Against the Machine or System of A Down; their music was very political. It was about political systems and people knew this, and were influenced by it. Is there a direct connection? Probably you’ll never find one, but there was definitely an overlap between the heavy metal community and the activist community. They moved in the same circles. So there was a connection.
Why could only metal represent Indonesia abroad?
Not only metal. I mean, the hype from playing abroad also comes from rockabilly. A lot of punks have become aware of Indonesia because Indonesia has such a large punk scene, so Indonesia is no longer unknown to a lot of international punks, which is very good news. Some people even understand dangdut because it sounds like Bollywood music, and so more people from the outside, even the West, understand dangdut.
But the thing about metal is that the metal community has always been very open minded. Because it is so global, they've always been very open minded about bands from other countries. As long as they're very good, it doesn't matter where they're from. It doesn't even really matter much what they look like. So, really good bands tend to get attention. That's why when Burgerkill got recognized by [Metal publication] Metalhammer, a lot of people paid attention. Because bands that are good and get promoted by the international metal industry tend to become representatives of that country. … We have a lot of heavy metal fans in Ohio, where I teach, and a lot of them don't really like American bands. A lot of their favorite bands are from Europe, for example. They do not necessarily know a lot of Asian bands, but maybe they know Chthonic from Taiwan, and their favorite bands come from places like Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands or Denmark. So there's always been an open mindedness about bands from other countries in the metal universe. That's one reason why I think Indonesian metal has been more accepted than say Indonesian pop or Indonesian hip hop. Although American hip hop started to open up just very recently. They started to listen to Asian hip hop, that's really very, very recent.
What does the current metal scene look like in Indonesia right now?
It seems like the scene is doing very well. I've been very impressed, there's a whole new generation of bands, there is the influence by the bands that came before, there's a lot of semangat [spirit and enthusiasm]. I think some are political and some aren't. I think there's a lot of excitement, there's some metalhead pride. And there's a lot of influences now, in that broad access there's so much in a way of inspiration that people are continuing to make their own music and put it all on the internet, and play shows. And now we're getting all these international bands playing shows here in Indonesia, that's new. Now every important band is coming to Southeast Asia. When I did research here in 1997 to 2000, nobody played here. So, this is a very good time for heavy metal in Indonesia right now.